Returning to Asilomar

A white-crowned sparrow on the Asilomar dunes (jby)

Asilomar Conference Grounds is a beautiful, peculiar place. Built in the early decades of the 20th Century as a “leadership camp” for the Young Women’s Christian Association, it’s a collection of warmly beautiful Arts and Crafts buildings nestled among Monterey pines in the dunes between the town of Pacific Grove and the Pacific Ocean. When the YWCA ran into financial trouble in the Great Depression, the State of California bought the property to establish a state park, and today operates it — via an Aramark concession — as a hotel and conference center. For years, now, it’s been the chosen venue for the American Society of Naturalists‘ biennial meeting, three days of research talks and poster sessions and symposia held in an elegant timbered chapel with beams carved with triumphal passages from the Psalms.

ASN’s Asilomar meeting was the last in-person conference I attended before SARS CoV-2 taught us all how to give our talks over video-stream; there was a fully online edition of the meeting in 2021, off the established cycle but making up for the cancelation of the summer Evolution meetings. At that time it was a relief to get back to any sort of interaction with the broader community, and although this wasn’t actually my first in-person conference since 2020 — I’ve now been to a couple of small meetings, and Botany 2022 this past summer — walking the paths of Asilomar and watching talks in the chapel and rolling my eyes at the inadequate supply of coffee in the dining hall’s breakfast service felt like coming home.

The ASN’s broad mandate to “enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences” means that the Asilomar meetings don’t center molecular data and DNA sequencing in the way that many biology meetings do — but there was molecular ecology to be found in more than a few of the talks I attended.

Andreas Härer presented work comparing the gut microbiomes of threespine stickleback from a selection experiment in artificial lakes established at the University of British Columbia, and found that fish that grew more rapidly over the course of the experiment had more similar microbiota than fish that put on less mass — maybe a case of the Anna Karina principle?

Jacob Francis paired microbial community sequencing with pollinator exclusion experiments to tease apart the competition and dispersal dynamics of floral nectar microbes in Epilobium canum. Although he found microbial community differences driven by individual plant- and cultivar-level effects when pollinators were excluded, allowing pollinator activity effectively homogenized the nectar microbe community — this work is, conveniently, already preprinted.

Ornamental yuccas and aloes along the shoreline trail in Pacific Grove (jby).

Erika Edwards gave a terrific introduction to a symposium on photosynthesis across the tree of life, laying out the specific differences between C3, C4, and CAM photosynthesis, and her lab’s work with species in the genus Portulaca, which are nearly unique in the ability to switch between C4 and CAM. One of multiple jaw-dropping moments was her description of work published just last year that resolved spatial variation in carboxylase gene expression across the cell populations of a single leaf to show how Portulaca oleracea makes the two forms of photosynthesis work together.

In the same photosynthesis symposium, Greg Fournier related his lab’s reconstruction of deep phylogenetic relationships to the timing of origin for oxygenic photosynthesis and aerobic respiration — the one created a global atmosphere that could support the other, but it was a multi-step process, with competing feedbacks. Early photosynthetic organisms might actually have self-inhibited, because they were generating oxygen that was, before the origin of aerobic respiration, toxic!

The flagship event of the meeting, though, might have been the symposium on the legacy of eugenics in evolutionary biology — a complement to the Special Section on “Nature, Data, and Power” in the July 2022 issue of The American Naturalist. Many of the talks dealt with the use and misuse of modern genetic data, including Krystal Tsosie’s discussion of past and ongoing abuses of Indigenous people in studies of human genetic diversity, and Rori Rolfs’s presentation of work dissecting the use of genetics in criminal forensics. Michele Markstein also gave some great perspective on the challenges of addressing eugenics in biology courses. Brandon Ogbunu, in particular, gave a barn-burner of a talk on the persistent legacy of eugenics, the blind spots it creates — such as treating environmental effects as statistical noise, rather than a fundamental part of the biology we’re meant to be studying — and the need to separate eugenicists’ useful insights from their “giddiness” and “incuriosity”.

Coming almost exactly a year after the field had to grapple with the (re)discovery of E.O. Wilson’s links to proponents of race science, the symposium was a strong statement of ASN’s commitment to critically examining and growing beyond evolutionary biology’s links to eugenics and white supremacy, even as it introduced language and perspectives many of us have rarely, if ever, encountered in a scientific meeting.

On a lighter note, the third symposium of the meeting addressed “modern coexistence theory”, an extension of population dynamics models that endeavors to predict the relationship between species’ niche overlap and their capacity for stable coexistence. I’ve not given much thought to MCT before this Asilomar meeting, but I can make that summary statement largely on the strength of a wonderfully clear and critical opening talk, by Tess Grainger, which may have taken the prize for best title slide of the meeting.


Overall, this first year back at Asilomar felt smaller than prior meetings — possibly because there’s still some hesitancy about COVID. Indeed, we mostly remained masked during talks and big (non-dining-hall) events, and there were a number of last-minute talk cancellations that seem consistent with folks withdrawing after positive tests. It was also somewhat weird to attend my first conference without Twitter. I live-posted most of the meeting on Mastodon, but I was almost alone on the #ASN2023 hashtag, even though ASN has an account on the same Fediverse server. Maybe this is a transitional period while ecologists and evolutionary biologists figure out new online forums, or maybe we’re getting ready to give up on mirroring conferences on social media.

Regardless, it was refreshing to return to the “real world” part of scientific conferencing, fully removing myself from my daily commitments to a separate space, talking and thinking and writing about science — with the occasional break for a run along the seashore, under the spreading branches of Monterey pines.

Midway through a run along the shoreline trail (jby)

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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